Jenny Slate gives a star-making performance in “Obvious Child,” a romantic comedy about Donna, a young stand-up comic who becomes pregnant and has an abortion. Her decision is not presented in a comic or light-hearted way. What is revolutionary is that it is presented at all. As writer-director Gillian Robespierre points out, in movies women who become unexpectedly pregnant either choose to deliver the child (“Knocked Up,” “Juno”), or miscarry. In this movie, Donna does not question her decision, but that does not mean it is an easy one. She is supported by her best friend, Nellie (Gaby Hoffman), and her mother (Polly Draper). I spoke to Slate and Robespierre about the film.
In the movie you do basically three stand-up performances. I want to talk to you about what I thought the most compelling scene in the film which was the second one, where you are working through some very deep pain on-stage.
Jenny: That was my favorite really, I like them all but I love that one. You know Donna is very, very free on stage and at the beginning of the movie she’s very free, from 0 to 100 in a second and she just keeps it at 100. You’re enjoying it and you’re not really considering whether or not it’s an active job or a passive job that she is doing up there. And I kind of consider it to be kind of the most basic sort of passive that she’s just blasting it out. And the second time she really lets her nature take over. That need to share has just become the most animal that it can be. In my mind that type of stand-up is equivalent of her just kind of like squatting on the ground and just like sorting through the detritus. This is my stuff, just doing it for nobody but herself. There many different things that we can do to ourselves and for ourselves and that one is on the non-helpful side but I find to be hilarious and you know it’s not so painful and cringeworthy where you don’t want to watch, the audience laughs.
The audience in the theater laughs, but the audience in the movie is uncomfortable because it is so raw.
Gillian: That was our intention. All of the extras were wonderful that day so we have a couple of cutaways with reactions that are just great. I’ve seen the movie millions of times but there’s always one guy who just looks so lost and scared, and really perturbed. I really wanted to make sure that the people in the club in the movie were awkward but the audience in the movie theater or at home are laughing.
Jenny: I like that dual thing where the guy leaves and Donna is like, “oh this is not working for you?” It’s a bummer for them but I think I did a thrill ride for us.
Gillian: One of my favorite parts in the movie. I looked forward to that.
You cast two of my absolute favorite actors as Donna’s parents, Richard Kind and Polly Draper.
Gillian: Well when we were looking for the parents, Jenny was always part of the film, we wanted to find the perfect combination of sort of whimsical and arty and tough. And it could have been either way, the dad could have been tough and the mom could have been whimsical but really the script meant for a fun creative dad and the more uptight mother. And I can picture them in the 80s wheeling down and around in New York City and really being tickled by each other but obviously they could not make it last. And they’re perfect left side/right side and that’s sort of what Donna has. We know that she on one hand tells very sort of body jokes but on the other hand she has a very high IQ, which are mom reminds her of everyday. And on stage which is sort of relating to the audience, are smart moments in her life that people can relate to even though she does it in a kind of silly way. So we wanted both of those aspects of her brain and her personality to be portrayed in human parents. And I love Polly Draper from Thirtysomething. I watched it when I was little and I obsess about that show. She and Jenny have the same raspy voice. I think they look alike. I think Richard Kind and Jenny have these malleable comic faces. I’m so thrilled they said yes. They read the script, they loved it and they saw that it was a Jenny Slate movie and they said yes immediately.
This was originally made as a short film so tell me a little bit about expanding it to full-length.
Gillian: Donna didn’t have a career in the short. We had to get in and out pretty quickly. She was a lot younger, she was 25 and she gets dumped, has a one night stand, discovers she is pregnant and then she bumps into the one night stand on the way to the woman’s health center. And we sort of just shot it four days in New York City with no money. We wanted to really expand in her world, creating her parents. In the short her mom was a character but not anything but a phone call so it was a voiceover. And that voice was acted by my mom. We expanded on Donna’s world. It was fun to figure out what is Donna going to be, what’s her job. She’s not a career person but she’s been in this bookstore for five years, it’s very comfortable in there. Her boss is a sort of grandpa figure. They’re friends and she’s really somebody who has a hard time with change and expanding her world. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that kind of character. She’s a little meek in life and not a victim but she lets a lot of things happen to her. “My boyfriend broke up with me and he is cheating on me so I can’t do my comedy anymore.” That’s a very passive way of thinking about life and the easy way until it’s hard.
Jenny: She thinks, “I’m just chill, I’m just trying to make s**t work and everybody’s just messing with me,” until suddenly just like, “God that just can’t be true because I feel so mad I must have some power in there.”
The movie has a beautiful portrayal of girl friendship, with the character played by Gaby Hoffman.
Jenny : In the scene where she is trying to say like, “No do your own thing” and Joey has his own opinion, she says, “You guys stop with the crazy jokes” which I think adds a really nice texture. And it just reveals a little bit of what their relationship is, kind of a threesome of friends and you don’t need to know that story but it just adds a bit of realism to it. Gaby and I are both people that are very eager to share so that made it very easy to connect to each other and then Gillian’s script is so clear.
Gillian: I feel like that’s a very important relationship in a lot women’s life. I know that I’m a gal’s gal and I have a lot of great friends. I have great female friends and they mean so much to me in my relationship, it’s so important and for Donna I wanted her to have that complex female relationship with her best friend who is not really going to let her get away with everything but also very unconditionally supportive. They’re polar opposites. Nellie is a little grumpy and a lot more reserved and has a lot more rules while Donna is sort of a wildflower who can’t really control things but they meet up in the middle and have some wonderful balance. And then three of them together, that’s when I think Joey and Donna sort of regress a little but they’re fun, they like to tell jokes each other, make each other laugh and made her laugh. Nellie won’t have it sometimes and then sometimes she breaks down and she chuckles.
What has the reaction been to the portrayal of abortion in the film?
Gillian: People are really excited for this story, I think it’s exciting to see a woman in screen who they can relate to and who they can laugh with. Pushback hasn’t really come our way yet and we’re excited for conversation if and when it happens.
Donna has to learn to overcome her prejudices when she meets a guy who does not look like what she is used to.
Gillian: At first he seems like a dull kind of frat boy muscleman. But like for every other character we wanted to make them complex and dimensional and with him it was like not just peeling away his bro-ness but to show that he’s really excited about this funny woman. When she tells a joke he laughs really hard and then he tells her one back and he’s a funny guy too. And she doesn’t feel like she deserves to be looked at so that was like a nice subtle layer that in there but also that she would never ever go for a guy who wears boat shoes.
Jenny : And then she makes fun of him right away. And he’s like, “don’t judge me”, and she’s like, “oh….”
What’s next for you?
Jenny: I’m in a new series on FX called “Married” with Paul Reiser. I play a woman who has a lot of daddy issues and a tiny, tiny bit of a partying problem. And she has a three-year-old son. It’s about different couples trying to make their marriages work.